Why couldn't he be more explicit in his expressions? It was because of the circumstances then. At that time, the Liu Song Dynasty had replaced the Eastern Jin Dynasty. The first emperor of the Liu Song Dynasty was Liu Yu who founded his empire by usurping the throne. If a person could live out his life peacefully, that would be very fortunate. However, many people have to undergo some trials and tribulations in their lifetime. This is different from taking an examination in school because it concerns the evaluation of a person's character. There are some people who do not have to undergo such appraisal. Take for instance when political upheavals occur, and if you do not follow the crowd, your life and family will be in danger. If you know very well that that particular path is wrong, will you still follow along? It will be best if a person doesn't have to meet with such danger, but if you do, how will you react and what sort of choices will you make? At an early age, I had already read Tao Yuanming's poems. Even though I understood the language of Tao's poems, I had not actually experienced such trying times. When would such tests usually occur? Tao Yuanming said that such things happened at the end of the three dynasties.
This character ji does not mean the four seasons, but rather it refers to a sequential order of things. For example, if there are four brothers in a family, they are ranked in the order of
bo, zhong, shu and ji. Ji refers to the youngest brother. That's why when the ancient Chinese mentioned the three
ji, they were referring specifically to the end of die three periods, which were the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties in China. The history prior to the Xia Dynasty is too antiquated and folklore such as 'the creation of heaven and earth' are only myths. However, the histories of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties are more factual. It is said that the last king of the Xia Dynasty, Xia Jie, was a fatuous and cruel person and that's why Shang Tang rose in revolt and overthrew him. The last king of the Shang Dynasty, Shang Zhou, was also a tyrant and as a result, King Wu of Zhou raised a rebellion and had him overthrown. Finally, all three dynasties were annihilated and the end of each period proved to be a test for all the officials. Certainly, there were differences in the choices made by the people at the end of the three dynasties and that made by Tao Yuanming. From the Eastern Jin to the Liu Song Dynasty, the additional factor of passing judgment on rights and wrongs has made matters more complicated. By comparing the emperors of the previous dynasty with the revolutionaries of a later era, it is very difficult to say with certainty who was right and who was wrong.
However, the conservatives of the Confucian school were of the opinion that regardless of the conduct of the Son of Heaven, the officials must not rebel against him. Even though King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty was not a benevolent king, those officials who rose in revolt against him were not good subjects either. This was the viewpoint of Boyi and Shuqi who disapproved of rebelling and usurping power. However, among the Confucians were some individuals who were more open-minded and Mencius was one of them. Once, King Xuan of Qi asked Mencius, "Was it right for King Tang to banish Jie and King Wu to send an expedition against Zhou?" King Tang of Shang banished King Jie of Xia and King Wu overthrew King Zhou of Shang. Could officials do such a thing? Mencius replied, "I have heard that, Zhou, the despot forsaken by all, was killed, but not that the killing was regicide." [Mencius - King Hui of Liang]. "Yi fu" refers to a solitary despot who does not have the support of anyone. Mencius said that King Zhou of Shang was fatuous and cruel and had lost the support of his subjects. That's why the person whom King Wu killed was only a forsaken person and this was not considered as regicide. Mencius also said, "If a ruler regards his officials as clay and grass, then they will regard him as their enemy." [Mencius - Li Lou]. This is to say if a ruler treats us subjects as grass and tramples on us, then we can regard him as a bandit and our enemy. So you see, not only is Confucian thought different from Mohist ideology, even within the Confucian school, there are various ways of thinking. In that case, during the end of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, was it right for Boyi and Shuqi not to support King Wu, or was it right for Lord Jiang to assist King Wu in attacking King Zhou? Actually, apart from these three eras, whenever there were dynastic changes in later periods, people were confronted with the dilemma of whether to support the old regime or the new one. Hence, Tao Yuanming was referring not only to the three eras, but also to the Jin-Song transitional period in which he lived.
Just now I said that I studied Tao Yuanming's poems when I was young and understood them only superficially. At that time, I did not comprehend the emotional experiences that he was referring to. It was only in recent years that I had some understanding. This did not come about from my own experiences but through one of my research topics. This research topic was on the scholar, Wang Guowei, who lived at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican period. In the end, he committed suicide by drowning. Why did he commit suicide? It was because he was embroiled in the political changes during the transitional period. He was plagued by the political vicissitudes of his time and so he committed suicide.
To be continued